Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is Anyone Really Surprised by the Disfunction in Washington?

The hand-wringing in the press and in commentaries has been predictably vicious this week - why can't Washington work together?  Why aren't our elected officials reaching compromise?

My question is - is anyone really surprised that we are approaching the edge of the "fiscal cliff" without a solution?

There is nothing in the history of negotiations between House Speaker Boehner and President Obama that indicates a strong capability to come to compromise.  And interestingly, those are probably the two most moderate voices in the room - Boehner's caucus consists of a lot of die-hards who have no interest indealing while Boehner actually wants a deal and many on the left would be happy to let negotiations fail and blame the GOP.

I always knew that if there was going to be a deal - and there still could be - although a "grand bargain" that permanently solves problems around revenue and entitlements seems increasingly unlikely (another interim patch seems more likely) - it would happen in the 11th hour.  Politics these days simply doesn't allow anything different.

Let's face it - the House GOP and the Democrats in the Senate and the White House were elected by different constituencies to do different things.  And they are both representing what they ran on.

So how did we elect people with such divergent agendas?

Well - we did - but not the way you might think.

Democrats got 1% more votes than Republicans in House races this fall.  Democrats won the national congressional vote 49.1% to 48.1%, a smaller, but still decisive margin from President Obama's popular vote total.  In other words - very few people actually split their tickets to get the result we got.

So how did the GOP swing a House majority with 1% less votes than the Democrats?  It all comes down to districts and there are 3 principle causes of the districting advantage for the GOP that leads to a House that is so different from the national vote:
(1) Inherent Demographics
Democrats tend to live in cities.  Republicans tend to live in suburbs, exurbs and the countryside.  This alone wouldn't create a House imbalance.  But it's a question of proportion.  Take Pennsylvania as an example - in the City of Philadelphia, Democrats win about 80% of the vote in a normal election.  In outlying Bucks County, Republicans normally win about 60% of the vote.  If you look at three congressional districts, one in Philadelphia and two in Bucks County, you will get 1 Democrat and 2 Republicans in congress, even though the total vote between the three districts will be roughly 50/50.
(2) Gerrymandering
Every 10 years, the 50 states (or at least the 43 that have more than 1 House seat) redraw district lines.  In a few states this is done by a non-partisan judicial commission.  In most states, however, lines are drawn by the state legislature and the Governor.  In 2011, when lines were being redrawn, Republicans controlled completely 25 state legislatures with 9 that were either split-control or nonpartisan and only 16 controlled by Democrats.  Republicans also controlled redistricting in big prize states like Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.  When you get to draw the lines, you will draw them in a way that favors your party - mainly by concentrating your opponents in a few districts and spreading out your supporters to win more districts.
(3) The Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did a great many things intended to support the electoral rights of minorities in the United States.  One aspect of the law required the creation of "minority majority" congressional districts - that is, principally districts with high concentrations of black voters intended to promote the election of black congressmen.  While the law did serve that purpose - black representation in Congress increased significantly, it also created inherent gerrymandering, in a way that favored the GOP, since it essentially concentrated black voters in a few districts, creating a few overwhelmingly Democratic districts but many more mildly Republican districts.

Items 1 and 3 have existed for a long time (at least since the 60s), but in the past, other forces gave the Democrats more parity - from the 60s through the 80s there were a large swath of Southern Democrats who largely got wiped out in the Republican takeover of 1994 (and finished off in the past few years.)  Also, the urban-rural and black-white vote polarization has actually increased significantly over the past 20 years.  And Democrats controlled far more state houses in the past 50 years than they did until the Republican gains in 2009 and 2010.

All of this leaves us with a situation where Democrats would have to win the national congressional vote by at least 2% in order to win the majority in the House - not an impossible task in the right year, but a pretty big intrinsic disadvantage.

All of this leads us to the balance of power that we have today - and our present confused, divided nation.

If you like this site, tell your friends.

No comments: